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Today Is Chile’s Chance to Bury Pinochet’s Legacy

Today's referendum in Chile provides the opportunity to scrap the right-wing constitution introduced by the Pinochet regime – and rebuild the country on a truly democratic basis.

Today, Chile goes to the polls in a historic referendum over a new constitution. Chileans will first be asked whether they want a new constitution and then, if so, how the constitution itself will be devised. The options are a constitutional convention [convención constitutional] or a mixed convention [convención mixta] – and the differences are more fundamental than they might appear.

The former, broadly supported by left-wing parties and organisations, will consist of 155 members, elected by civil society in the next local elections. The latter, supported by the liberal sectors, would be constituted by 172 members but where 50% will be parliamentarians and 50% elected members chosen by civil society. What on paper seems to be quite a technical choice is in fact the most important political vote that Chileans will take part in since the decision to vote out the dictator Augusto Pinochet in the plebiscite of 1988.

The demand for the plebiscite in Chile wasn’t generated within the claustrophobic walls of the Chilean Congress, nor by the interest of the current right-wing government of Sebastian Piñera. On the contrary, it is a product of bottom-up pressure that began in earnest with the social uprising of October 2019.

After several months of mass protest across the country, which cost the lives of 34 people and left more than 400 people with permanent injuries, the people of Chile forced the government and Congress to call a referendum over a new constitution. This call was endorsed by the progressive political alliances – including political parties, unions, social-based organisations – which had sustained the protests. But why is this such a significant demand for Chileans? The answer to this has its roots in Chilean history, and the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Salvador Allende’s election as president.

Allende’s Ghost

Allende’s election on the September 4th, 1970 opened a Chilean path to socialism, presenting the most progressive political and social agenda ever seen in the country. During the short period of the Unidad Popular’s government, peoples’ lives improved tremendously through the nationalisation of resources, redistribution of wealth and increases in social security.

There were also improvements for indigenous communities. Mapuches, the largest indigenous community in the country, recovered hundreds of hectares of lands that had been usurped throughout the Spanish colonisation and during the consolidation of the independent Chilean nation-state.

However, the dream of socialism, or even of social progress, ended with the economic blockade imposed by the US and supported by the local elite, which triggered the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet in 1973. This period was not only characterised by the systematic violation of human rights for over seventeen years, but also saw the dismantling of much of the socialist and progressive programme implemented during the period Unidad Popular.

The role played by the ‘Chicago Boys’ is well known. Under the instruction of Milton Freedman, they used Chile as the site for the first experiment in neoliberalism in the world. But here’s where today’s events become so important – the process of economic reforms that permitted the establishment of neoliberalism in the 1980s would not have been possible without the imposition of the current political constitution in the midst of the dictatorship.   

Although Chile had a reputation for many years as one of South America’s more affluent countries, the benefits have always been and continue to be seen only by the upper classes – and this was something codified by Pinochet’s constitution. Social and economic inequality was written in-between its lines when it allowed the expansion of private education, healthcare and pensions – among other private wealth-making initiatives.

These three areas in particular – which are key aspects of social provision which have been substantially turned over to the market – are anchors which have deepened class inequalities in Chile for decades. By enshrining them in the constitution, they became next to impossible to change – despite many years of protest.

Attempts at Reform

Throughout the 1990s, timid reforms were made to the constitution with the promise that these would be enough to reduce the gulf of inequality. This approach was underpinned by the myth of meritocracy which encouraged Chileans to continue attempting to work their way out of poverty.

However, more than thirty years since the return to democracy, and forty years after the establishment of the 1980 constitution, Chile has only managed to appear modern. A big financial sector grew in Santiago, bringing tall glass buildings to the richest areas of the city – which led the emerging elite to dub the area ‘Sanhattan,’ reflecting the closeness of the Chilean ruling class to American capitalism.

Governments throughout those thirty years – from both sides of the political spectrum – sold this modern appearance abroad, bringing extensive foreign direct investment which has contributed to significant environmental catastrophes and ongoing conflicts throughout the country, affecting in large part indigenous and rural communities.

However, in October 2019, the aesthetic of a modern and advanced Chile collapsed amid the smoke billowing from over one hundred burning metro stations and hundreds of thousands of people turning to the streets of the main cities in the country. What began as anger over an increase in public transport fares soon broadened to a series of longstanding social and economic concerns over pensions, healthcare and wages – and ultimately resulted in a demand for a new constitution.

The national elite, the media and the government could do nothing other than acknowledge that this was a turning point for their political project – which had been in decay for many years. But the campaign for a new constitution did not emerge in a vacuum. Previous years were filled with campaigns demanding structural change that met limitations in Congress for being ‘unconstitutional.’

Education and pension reforms were two such areas of concern which gained huge support among the population. The 2011 ‘Free Education Movement’ lasted over nine months, in which universities and schools were occupied in demand for free and quality education for the entire population. This was met with a timid educational reform, which did not resolve issues such as the end to the municipalisation of schools – a key cause of inequality at primary and secondary levels.

The limits to progressive reform were always found in the constitution, whose provisions about the ‘freedom of teaching’ provide justification for private schools and the commodification of education and make universal state provision a pipe dream. This locks in profiteering and economic competition across all educational levels.

In 2018 the national campaign led by pensioners – known as ‘No More AFP’, in reference to the administrators of pension funds – strengthened the demand to end the current private system of pensions inaugurated in 1981 by the brother of the current President, former Minister of Labour and Social Security during the dictatorship, Jose Piñera.

Ironically, the private system that was said to benefit workers in all sectors of the economy did not include the military – who decided to keep for themselves the old state-administrated system of pensions. The ‘No More AFP’ campaign revealed how, after forty years of privatisation of pensions, workers, especially with low incomes, had seen their pensions reduced and access to healthcare limited or not provided. It further damaged the crumbling legitimacy of the political order.

A Revolt Against Neoliberalism

These campaigns, among many others, demonstrate a cumulative process of discontent which exploded in the revolts of 2019. Many of the demands thrown up in the context of that uprising were nearly identical to the policies and political ideas which were once presented by Allende fifty years prior, such as the nationalisation of water, workers’ rights and recognition of the Mapuche nation.

The energies of the revolt were directed against neoliberalism – an economic and political project that was imposed by force on Chile during seventeen years of dictatorship. The rise of metro fares which triggered student protests on that October 18th was just the tipping point and gave rise to the slogan at the core of all demands: “it’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years.”

To the surprise of the government and most of the political elite, the movement was not controlled or led by any political party or political group. In fact, left-wing parties, such as the Communist Party and Broad Front, joined the movement only after the masses paralysed the streets of Santiago and other cities. For the first time since Allende was elected, it was the people leading the fight for the transformation of Chile.

This does not mean that political parties have not had a say in the process which followed. Right-wing parties have continued to resist change and reject the demands which arose from the uprising, falling back on unconvincing arguments, promoting fear and scapegoating. Some liberal sectors of those parties have accepted the need for change through reforms, joining the demand for a new constitution.

On the other hand, left-wing and centre-left parties have been supportive of the core demands of the social revolt. Many parliamentarians of the left parties were leaders of the student movement in 2011, and are thus connected to grassroots organisations, while many others (particularly in the Communist Party) lived through and resisted the Pinochet dictatorship.

The decision of Congress to give Chileans the right to vote in a referendum for a new Constitution would have never happened without the social uprising of October 2019. After all, and despite scenes of revolts, there is one conventional narrative about Chile that is true – Chile is a country which follows and respects its institutions. The broad acceptance of rules, the general assumption of the function of institutions and the need for a state presence is something constantly present throughout Chile’s history.

Allende was democratically elected fifty years ago because of this national characteristic, different from other socialist movements in the region which took the armed path to revolution. Today’s referendum is similar in nature. It signifies an attempt to democratically resolve the fury of the revolt. But what will happen next?

The campaigns around the referendum have been limited by the Covid-19 crisis that has unsurprisingly hit the country hard. The decision about the type of process used to write a new constitution is a key question in terms of how deeply transformational this moment can be.

If convención mixta wins, this would mean that privileged sectors of the political elite, those who have been congealed in Congress for decades, will have an important influence in the decision-making – going against the principles which emerged in the social uprising. But it’s important to say that the lack of unity among the left – a key theme in this period which has prevented it from capitalising on popular energies – could also endanger the prospect of transformation in the case of a convención constitutional.

What is at stake in this vote is huge, but the uncertainties will remain regardless of the result. The social uprising revived Allende’s socialism and the culture and comradery of Unidad Popular, bringing back the soft voice of Víctor Jara to the loud shouts of protestors. But it is still a fact that Chile remains, after forty years of neoliberalism, an atomised country without widespread political participation.

These contradictions will be present today when people participate in the most important vote of a generation. The possibilities of another revolt and a deeper political polarisation are significant. However, the dream of an open Grandes Alamedas – that long avenue in Santiago which Allende referenced in his last speech – has become vivid in the popular imagination. And there seems to be no way for the ruling class to close it again.